‘Education will be the biggest growth industry of the 21st century,’ according to Pearson, the world’s largest edu-business, which provides educational content, resources and customisable services, such as online and adaptive learning technologies.
With its $9.5billion in sales last year, it is clear that education is proving quite profitable for Pearson and its shareholders.
In general, edu-businesses – from multinational corporations, to smaller national providers and even individual entrepreneurs – now offer education ‘solutions’ to national governments, school systems, and civil society through an extensive range of increasingly sophisticated products and services. The extent of their activities is such that edu-businesses now appear to be powerful, monolithic entities, taking control of our public education systems with little concern for the rationalities that might stand in their way.
Yet, in the wake of financial crises and much talk of growing inequality, it is now near impossible, for private corporations to avoid the ‘goldfish bowl’ of public scrutiny.
Pearson, in particular, has been the focus of much critique about the increasing privatisation of education. For example, activist blogger, Diane Ravitch, who was the former Assistant Secretary of Education in President George W. Bush’s administration, and now an outspoken opponent to what she calls the ‘Pearsonization’ of American schooling, argues that despite Pearson’s altruistic claims about its mission to improve people’s lives through learning, its activities are unquestionably linked to investor interest.
In response to this context, Pearson has been implementing a new business strategy over recent years, in which it now focuses on its accountability as a socially responsible business. According to Pearson, this goal is achieved through its focus on efficacy, whereby all its products and services will have a proven, measurable impact, on learning outcomes. Indeed, Pearson intends to report on efficacy alongside its financial accounts by 2018. As Pearson summarises, this ‘enables us to put our social impact at the very heart of our business’.
Efficacy for Pearson then, isn’t just about making a sale, but being accountable for the outcomes its products and services promise to deliver. Much like the rationale of the pharmaceutical industry, Pearson’s new focus on efficacy is an attempt to build trust with its customers through recourse to an ‘evidence base’ that legitimises its activities.
There is a sense here that if Pearson wants to position itself as contributing to the public good, it is necessary to be seen as transparent and accountable. To this end, Pearson has embraced accountability as a way to conjure a moral dimension to its ‘mission’, presenting itself as a corporation focused on a double bottom line of profitability and responsibility.
Yet, given Pearson has no democratic constituency (and is only responsible to its shareholders for profit making), can it be truly responsive to the public interest in education? Of course, we would likely claim it cannot. The very accountability mechanisms made available here assume ‘efficacy’ as a driving purpose, thus working to exclude debate about the broader purposes of schooling informed by the views of teachers, parents, students and other publics.
By claiming that Pearson products will guarantee learning outcomes, the complexities of teaching and learning in our incredibly diverse school environments are entirely disregarded. Indeed, there is a huge professional deficit in these developments where teachers are constructed as simply the implementers or enactors of Pearson products, with no legitimate policy development interests.
In some ways, Pearson seeks to openly embrace its responsibility for contributing to learning opportunities and outcomes that would previously have been considered the responsibility of governments, seeking to position the company as a publicly accountable policy actor and its products and services as legitimate alternatives to the public provision of education. Such a strategy is indicative of Pearson’s desire to become a major agent in global education policy processes; it seeks to engage with these accountability processes not simply as an edu-business, but as an actor that is considered to be influential and responsible in ways similar to national governments and international organisations.
It’s important to stress that Pearson has legitimate business interests in education, like being contracted to construct tests or sell textbooks. But certain aspects of public education, including its democratic governance, are worth defending.
The American public has issued us a warning; Pearson has taken over the direction of their public education systems. It’s time for the Australian public to act before we find ourselves in the same position. We need to stand up and fight for what we believe in as a democratic society; free, universal, publicly provided, quality schooling.
Dr Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice and has recently completed her PhD with Bob Lingard and Sam Sellar. Anna, Bob and Sam have a number of recent papers that focus on Pearson, and in particular, Pearson’s Efficacy Framework is further analysed in Au and Ferrare’s (2015) edited book, ‘Mapping corporate education reform: Power and policy networks in the neoliberal state’. Anna also has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher and Critical Studies in Education
Find Anna Hogan’s book NAPLAN and the role of edu-business: New governance, new privatisations and new partnerships in Australian education policy HERE